Can the U.S. left play the Blair card?

Blair_churchAnyone who has been reading GetReligion in the wake of 11/2 knows I am convinced that one of the major stories of 2005 will be the early signs of what the religious left will do to help the political left address the “pew gap.”

On one level, the press will simply cover this as an attempt by the Democratic Party to “get religion,” to (cue: trumpet flourish) quote the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s post-election column. But the reality is more complex than that. This is not a matter or pro-religion vs. anti-religion. For starters, there are different brands of religion “to get.”

Anyone who wants to see this process in action can look across the Atlantic at media coverage of faith and the career of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Rachel Sylvester provided an update on this story recently in the Telegraph, under the headline, “Mr Blair has a strong belief in mixing religion and politics.”

This is controversial stuff, especially since “God” has become a curse word on the British left. Besides, if Blair talks about God and President George W. Bush talks about God, then this suggests that Blair’s faith might in some way resemble Bush’s — which is, as everyone knows, hard-core fundamentalist Christian insanity — which could mean the death of modern England.

Nevertheless, as Sylvester’s essay makes clear:

 . . . (This) Government is, in fact, more Christian than any of its recent predecessors, of either political persuasion. There is a divide on the Left between those who adhere to Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the masses and those who agree with Keir Hardie that Labour politics derive “more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined”. The Blair administration is well and truly in the latter camp.

Indeed, and here is the point. It is true that there are British journalists and elite thinkers who are appalled at Blair’s open embrace of Christian faith. This is a true secular reaction to any claim of the sacred. We will see this in America, as well, as soon as more Democrats tap into the new, progressive, “purple” religious language flowing out of upstate Illinois and other locations.

Blair knows what is going on. He knows that some forms of religion are more dangerous than others. Again, here is the Sylvester essay:

Tony Blair, meanwhile, is the first Prime Minister since Gladstone who keeps a copy of the Bible beside his bed. . . . According to his biographer Anthony Seldon, the Labour leader thought seriously about going into the Church when he left university, and a political career is not that different, in his mind, from a religious calling.

“My Christianity and my politics came together at the same time,” he once said, explaining to The Telegraph that his Christian values led him “to oppose what I perceived to be the narrow view of self-interest that Conservatism — particularly its modern, more Right-wing form — represents”. Naturally, his is an outward-looking faith that accepts the validity of other religions. What he does not have time for, however, is non-belief. “Religion should remain the bedrock of civilization,” he told a multi-faith service held to celebrate the Millennium.

So there is the secular option. Then there is the right-wing, traditionalist option. In between is a progressive yet pro-faith option. This middle position accepts some religious claims, some emphasis on absolute truths and absolute evils. In Britain, this is currently affecting foreign policy debates, with Blair solidly left on moral and cultural issues. But even there, he is trying to sound Clintonian on some cultural and family issues, while avoiding any compromise on the big issues such as abortion and gay rights.

It also helps Blair that when the British press says “the church” this usually means the Church of England, which leans way left on moral and cultural issues (or at least it does in England and North America). When the U.S. press says “the church” this could mean anything. This usually means the church of the candidate. For a progressive, this is OK if you are a member a liberal mainline church. It is troublesome — ask Sen. John Kerry — if one is a Catholic. Clinton, of course, was a Baptist — a word that is defined differently from person to person, from congregation to congregation.

Meanwhile, here is what Blair has started saying: “There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We should not hesitate to make such judgments.” And there you have it. Can the American left say that, without too great a firestorm in, oh, Hollywood and the New York Times editorial page offices?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com/ Dwight

    Blair might be an attractive route for religious progressives, but then again he’s so moved labour from it’s origins, that in some ways he’s governed to the right of a Clinton.

    I don’t think the issue in any case is whether moral judgments can be made. There’s no shortage of them from either side of the political and religious spectrum.

    The question is whether we’ll heed H. Richard Neibuhr’s belief that monotheism entails some relativization of our claims in the face of the absolute.

  • http://wetzell.blogspot.com/ dlw

    I reposted the post and gave my own commentary on what the left needs to do to mitigate the pew-gap.

    http://wetzell.blogspot.com/2005/01/tony-blairexemplar-of-how-faith-and.html

  • V. Rev. Athanasios Emmert

    I am hoping that you can provide some information. I don’t know how to email you directly. Where can we find an org. that is not “top heavy” admin. wise to give funds to assist the effort for SE Asia? The IOCC is very top heavy with administration [e.g. several ex priests] a lot of self promotion etc. Our parish of Assumption GO Price, Utah wants to help but not through IOCC. Father Athanasios Emmert. P.S. I don’t know who to inquire with this, and thought your position and contacts could be of help.


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